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12 December 2014

Turning budget cuts into drama, and photography after the blast

Mark Lawson weighs up the hard choices facing the arts.

By Mark Lawson

One effect of voters’ present suspicion of elected representatives has been to nudge political fiction towards dark comedy, such as The Thick of It, or thrillers with statesmen as villains, such as House of Cards or the movie The Ides of March, with George Clooney as a presidential candidate who is responsible for his young mistress’s death.

Americans at least got The West Wing, a liberal fantasy in which a commander-in-chief with a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is surrounded by a staff competing for a Nobel in integrity, but British TV viewers get legislators as baddies – such as David Tennant plotting to stop his wife becoming prime minister in The Politician’s Husband – while, in theatre, MPs have recently been farcical figures in Yes, Prime Minister, The Duck House and Handbagged.

So the dramatist Jack Thorne is bravely opposing cultural orthodoxy by attempting to write a stage play that takes politics and politicians seriously. Hope at the Royal Court Theatre in London (until 10 January) takes place in an unnamed, Luton-like community, where the Labour council has been instructed by the coalition government to cut its budget by £64m over three years.

The leader, Hilary, chooses to make the “hard choices”, drawing up brisk lists of the cases for closing museums and day centres rather than leisure centres and libraries; in rather pointed casting, this savage pragmatist is played by Stella Gonet, who recently portrayed Margaret Thatcher in Handbagged. Her deputy, Mark (Paul Higgins), is less compliant, wondering what would happen if they refused to set a budget.

The consequences of Mark’s attempt offer a lively civics lesson on the way the coalition has rigged the system so local government takes the flak for reductions that are enforced by Westminster. This politically educative element suggests that Thorne has been watching The West Wing, as does his softening of public policy with private dilemmas: Mark is a recovering alcoholic whose ex-wife is a recipient of one of the grants ripe for slicing. But the director John Tiffany departs from this naturalistic model in sequences of song and choreography that, for me, would have been a candidate for cutting.

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While Thorne records English speech with digital clarity – catching the gaps and loops of real conversation – he has failed to engage most reviewers in a political dialogue: Hope has faced accusations of naivety in questioning the absolute necessity of deep reductions in public expenditure and of loading his case by including among the characters a woman with Down’s syndrome whose beloved day centre is closing down.

Yet real examples of such wrenching outcomes can be found in the newspaper of any town with a council being urged to “live within its means” and Thorne sharply shows how the budgetary process becomes subject to pressures either illogical (get a social media petition signed by celebrities and you might survive) or unpalatable (the local racists are thrilled by the hitting of provision for immigrants). Most provocatively, he suggests that state contraction is a “class war” in which the Tories have used the recession to slay long-hated social scapegoats.

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These conclusions may be arguable but it is a measure of how successful David Cameron and George Osborne have been with their post-Thatcherite “There is no alternative” rhetoric on cuts that even many on the left seem to think that Thorne is being unreasonable.

Time fades away

Exposure time – which determines how much light is let into a camera – is a vital calculation in photography. But an intriguing exhibition at Tate Modern in London explores a different type of timing: the gap between a historical event and its depiction.

“Conflict, Time, Photography” (until 15 March) ranges from images taken within seconds, such as Luc Delahaye’s record of the smoke rising from the bombing of a Taliban position in Afghanistan, to an exposure that has taken almost 100 years: Chloe Dewe Mathews’s pictures of sites where deserters were executed on the Western Front. Because the event and any evidence are long gone, these photos require captions to tell their stories and the most revealing pictures are those taken closest to the triggering incident. The exceptions are locations revisited at intervals, such as the Japanese atomic bomb sites, seen in prints shot 20 minutes and several weeks after the nuclear detonations and then revisited from three to 65 years later.

With that sequence, as with the strands featuring Berlin and Vietnam, it’s easier to make comparisons in the catalogue than the gallery, where the chronological arrangement – in rooms with names such as “Moments Later” and “100 Years Later” – requires a good memory or willing feet to follow a subject through. One of the show’s inspirations was that Kurt Vonnegut, after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, was only able to complete his novel on the subject, Slaughterhouse-Five, in 1969. Curiously, another numerically hyphenated American classic, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, didn’t appear until 16 years after the end of the Second World War it describes.